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  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Jag Bhalla

    Tue, 22 Sep 2009 09:51


    Jag Bhalla is a language lover who has always been fascinated by its illogicalities. He's also an envious monolingual who has always been intrigued by other languages. His first book, I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, is an armchair tour of 1,200 idioms from 10 languages. Idioms are the most illogical elements of language. These odd and often funny expressions are defined as phrases whose meaning isn't clear from the words in them (e.g. "kick the bucket" or "pull your leg"). They're turns of phrase that require a sudden turn of meaning. International idioms can give insights into other cultures and also into the workings of another strange land that's much closer to home, the one sitting between all our ears. Here are some example:

    I'm not hanging noodles on your ears = I'm not pullign your leg (Russian)

    To peel the teeth = to smile (Mexican Spanish)

    Belch smoke from seven offices of the head = furious (Chinese)

    To bang your butt on the ground = to die laughing (French)

    To live like a maggot in bacon = to live in luxury (German)

    To reheat cabbage = rekindle an old flame (Italian)

    Onions should grow in your navel = a mild insult (Yiddish)

    To make tea with your navel = that's laughable (Japanese)

    His list consist of the top ten books on language, linguistic humour and related sciences that he used as reference sauces. That spelling and pun are intentional, like any good sauce they added much flavour.

    Anyway! Here is Jag's Top Ten:

    The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacot de Boinod

    This is a are remarkable collections of words from 120 languages that don't have simple translations into English. "Tingo" means "to empty your neighbours house by borrowing things one by one" in Pascueses, which is spoken on Easter Island. Other examples include German having a single word that means the "disappointment one feels when something turns out not nearly as badly as one had hoped." Or Inuit that has a word for "to exchange wives for a few days only". And from Hindi a two-word expression that means "a person so miserly that if a fly fell into his cup of tea, he would fish it out and suck it dry before throwing it away". Irresistible to any language lover, Tingo, and its sequel Toujours Tingo, were an inspiration for my own efforts at linguistic cross-pollination.

    The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings

    Hitchings book is a thoroughly engrossing tour through the story of "how English became English". I thought I knew a lot about the subject but was delighted by frequent discoveries. A key feature of English is its voracious appetite for borrowing from other languages. Hitchings quotes old texts that claim it is our duty to ennoble our own tongue with the "ornament and excellence of other languages" and that "the most renowned of other nations have entrusted [England] with the rarest Jewelles of their lipps perfection." English seems to have responded admirably, having welcomed linguistic jewels from 350 languages. The Secret Life of Words won a Somerset Maugham Award this year and the authors well crafted sentences and dramatic views can be seen frequently in the web/pages of the London Evening Standard, he became their theater critic earlier this year.

    Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

    Shea is a dictionary addict who in this charming book records his experience of reading the complete Oxford English Dictionary. It took a year to get through all 21,730 pages (20 volumes, weighing 137lbs) of it. He lists his favourite underappreciated and endangered words; those facing extinction that could be beneficially resuscitated. My favorite candidates for resuscitation are gymnologize="to dispute naked, like an Indian philosopher"; gulchin="small glutton"; natiform="buttock shaped"; lant="to add urine to ale to make it stronger"; tardiloquent= "talking slowly" and bedinner="to treat to dinner".

    Semantics Antics by Sol Steinmetz

    This is a great little book on etymological drift. It explains why long ago you wouldn't have wanted to be nice, smart, or handsome but would rather have been a bully, or silly, or sad. Nice in middle English (1300) originally meant someone who was foolish or ignorant. Smart for the first 300 years of its use meant causing pain, sharp or cutting, a sense that survives in the idiom "smart as a whip". Handsome when coined around 1425, meant easily handled; it didn't have its current positive connotation until 1590. Bully first meant "darling or sweetheart" and is used in this sense in Shakespeare. For example, in Henry V, "I love the lovely bully" wasn't a confession of masochism. Silly in early Middle English meant happy, blissful, blessed or fortunate. Sad in Olde Englishe meant full or satisfied. It's shocking to think about how radically the meanings of words can chance.

    Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler

    This is an astonishingly ambitious and monumental history of the major languages groups. Ostler is a professional linguist and chairman of the foundation for Endangered Languages. Here is a sample of his linguistic wisdom: "Each language has its own color and flavor. We have glimpsed some of the distinctive traits: Arabic's austere grandeur and egalitarianism; Chinese and Egyptian's unshakeable self-regard; Sanskrit's luxuriating classifications and hierarchies; Greek's self-confident innovation leading to self-obsession and pedantry; Latin's civic sense; Spanish's rigidity, cupidity and fidelity; French's admiration of rationality; and English's admiration of business acumen."


    As of This Writing and Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

    I have always hungrily devoured James work. He is a peerless prose (and poetry) stylist and accomplished commentator on culture. As of This Writing is a collection of his always insightful essays, worth reading even when you're not remotely interested in the subject matter -- just for the well sculpted sentences. Cultural Amnesia is an astonishing feat of encyclopedic erudition. It is the distilled essence of over 40 years of his high powered reading and analysis (in several languages). I borrow just a couple of his bon-mots. He notes that the importance of humour is "an idea built into the English language over centuries of comic richness" along with the caution that "learning and knowledge must be kept in balance." And on the nature of good writing he says "a writer leaves you everything to say. It is in the nature of the medium to start a conversation within you..."

    Words Words Words by David Crystal

    In addition to being an accomplished linguist, David Crystal is a hugely prolific author, having written over a 100 books on language. Just a couple of examples of wonderful facts from his texts: only 20% of English's current word stock comes from Olde Englishe (the rest are new coinages or the linguistic coin of other realms; and two-thirds of jokes in a typical collection depend on word play.

    The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

    Pinker continues to be the most lucid writer on the state of the art in cognitive sciences and their application to issues that affect our lives. I depend on his latest masterpiece, The Stuff of Thought, to make several important points in my book. For example Pinker notes "most information processing in the brain is unconscious." That cursing may have been the precursor of all language, known as poo-poo theory ("since swearing involves clearly more ancient parts of the brain, it could be a missing link between animal vocalization and human language"). And on idioms Pinker believes they aren't peripheral oddities, but are central to how language works. Our long-term memory can hold between 50,000 and 100,000 words and, interestingly, "probably at least as many idioms" or other predefined expressions.

    Kluge by Gary Marcus

    This is a great summary of recent neuroscience and psychology which demonstrates that we aren't built to be as rational or logical as we might like. The scientific evidence shows we need to rethink, the way we think, about the way we think. The model of our minds we've inherited from the Enlightenment is no longer sufficiently accurate. Our brains are kludgey Rube Goldberg machines, built of rickety but evolutionarily useful parts. One example I use is of how our behavior is prone to non-conscious influences. Researchers had volunteers construct grammatically correct sentences from lists of words. The time it took the volunteers to them to walk down the exit corridor was surreptitiously measured. Astonishingly those whose lists had contained words associated with old age (like retired or wrinkled) walked significantly more slowly. The words they had been exposed to measurably changed the speed at which they walked.

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    Michael Henderson is English and Irish and lived many years in the United States. He is the author of ten books. Some, like his latest, No Enemy To Conquer, deal with the role of forgiveness in national life. His distributor calls it Forgiveness with teeth. His book See You After the Duration is an authoritative account of the evacuation of British children to the United States in World War II. He was one of them.

    Not surprising, perhaps, that his choice of books is dominated by relations between Britain and the United States and questions of forgiveness. Here is Michael's Tuesday Top Ten:

    Have A Nice Day by Justin Webb

    A wonderful antidote to many of the condescending attitudes of supposedly informed Brits towards America, written by the BBC's own man on the spot. It captures so much of the real America not known to many. Appropriate that it should be published when there is a new dawn in the United States.

    Masters And Commanders by Andrew Roberts

    With my father in the War Office and my mother in the Censorship, and with the wartime patriotism of the young, I grew up in awe of Roosevelt and Churchill, Marshall and Brooke. I was fascinated by this account of the interaction of these titans on whom our future depended, skilfully told by one of our leading historians.

    Churchill and America by Martin Gilbert

    Having heard Churchill speak at Harvard in 1943 and being active for thirty years in the English-Speaking Union of which he was the chairman from 1921 to 1925, I have always wanted to know more about the English statesman and his relations with the United States. From Churchill's first visit to America in 1895 through his wartime interaction with Roosevelt, Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer, describes the evolution of the man whose mother was American and who more than anyone else embodied the special relationship.

    Churchill by Himself by Richard M. Langworth

    Strangely I only came across this author recently. I had asked Sir Martin Gilbert for the origin of an elusive quote from Churchill. He didn't know it, he said, and suggested I contact Richard Langworth. With the help of Mr. Langworth and his network the origin was quickly discovered, and I discovered his books. The latest is a wonderful compendium of Churchill's view on every conceivable subject. It is, indeed, as Jack S. Churchill says, "The Bible of Churchill quotations."

    The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill

    What do African-Americans really think about a black man in the White House? And this black man? What better person to give us a flavour of the response to Obama's election than an African-American woman who is a fount of political wisdom as one of America's senior political correspondents. "His success," she writes, "is merely the ripple in a pond that grows deeper every day." Subtitled Politics and race in the age of Obama this is an indispensable book for anyone who would like to contribute to better race relations.

    Father of the House by Kim E. Beazley

    Think most politicians are on the take? Here is a book that will astound. It is the memoirs of one of Australia's most respected political leaders. The Australian National University, awarding him an honorary doctorate, pointed out that his great achievements, the healing of sectarian bitterness as minister of education and the enhancement of the dignity of the Aboriginal people, came because he had worked irrespective of party political gain. Read and be inspired by a man of integrity.

    Gandhi: The Man, His People and The Empire by Rajmohan Gandhi

    Yet another book about Gandhi and more satisfying than many. For we get the whole man, warts and all, from his grandson who has had unprecedented access to family archives. Rajmohan Gandhi, who has been editor, senator, and ambassador and now teaches at an American university, brings all his experience and talents to bear on the subject of interpreting the beliefs and actions and sometimes idiosyncracies of this "Father of the Indian nation". More than 600 pages, but every one of them worth reading.

    No Future Without Forgiveness by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

    If any country is a demonstration that forgiveness is not just a personal or religious affair it is South Africa. It has also through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission pioneered an approach that is being mirrored in other countries. Nobel Peace laureate Tutu, with directness, sympathy, and sometimes humour, tells the amazing story of the transformation in a country. If you have time to read only one book about the Commission read this one by its chairman.

    What's So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey

    I have tried to read every book I can find on forgiveness since I often write about it. I can confidently say that this is the best book on the subject I have ever read. I have made a practise of getting all of Philip Yancey's books and am always looking for the next one. A man of deep faith, he persists in writing even though not so long back he was in a horrific car accident. This book is about faith in action not faith as theology. As he says, "I would rather convey grace than explain it."

    The Dignity of Difference by Sir Jonathan Sacks

    I don't read every columnist in The Times but I would never pass up an article by the Chief Rabbi. His columns always have important truths and often fresh insights. This collection of essays has the same urgency and appeal. Sir Jonathan describes it as "a plea -- the most forceful I could make -- for tolerance in an age of extremism." Its subtitle is How to avoid the clash of civilizations. The Daily Telegraph writes that "it stands far above other books about globalization and the so-called clash of civilizations, both for what it has to say and for the grace with which it says it."

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Tim Gosling

    Tue, 25 Aug 2009 03:55

    In the world of furniture and design the name Tim Gosling is synonymous with sophistication, excellence, and craftsmanship. Tim's designs have graced yachts, corporate boardrooms, country homes and city apartments... and here is his Tuesday Top Ten:

    The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

    This joins me on my desert island. The sheer joy and wit that is evoked in this really small book is wonderful. It talks about the Queen stumbling across a mobile library round the side of Buckingham Palace, where she takes out a book -- and her reading life begins... Pure heaven.

    Palladio by Howard Burns

    Following on from the exhibition at the Royal Academy, this book runs through Palladio's work and his rise to fame. The exhibition was amazing, but due to the drawings being so small and the amount of people wanting to look closely at the detail, it felt rather like a chicken farm on a hot day. By contrast the book takes its time. It is beautifully laid out and has a great deal of in-depth information and sketches that I missed in the show. A must for all classical designers.

    Sir John Soane's Museum, London by Tim Knox. Photography by Derry Moore

    This new look at Sir John Soane by the Director of the museum is great -- not because Tim wrote the Foreword to my book, or because of the museum. It really is a wonderfully fresh look at the genius of a designer who changed so much of how we look at interiors and the architectural space we live in. The pictures are great. Soane has got to be one of my heroes.

    Great Houses of England and Wales by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd. Photography by Christopher Sykes

    This came out a few years ago, but in my view continues to be such a great inspiration. It covers Alnwick Castle to Petworth -- 32 extraordinary houses which should be part of everyone's education. It certainly inspires me to run all over the country trying to make sure I see them all.

    Holkham by Christian B. Keller

    A truly wonderful book that inspired me to go up and sketch the building and to absorb the architecture of William Kent. The fact that this is a very personal book by the current Earl and Countess of Leicester is brilliant, as it becomes a unique insight into the continuing history of a living stately home.

    The Genius of Robert Adam: His Interiors by Eileen Harris

    This is an in-depth work on Robert Adam and his interiors. I find this book an invaluable resource when looking at colour and classical design. The images are big enough to clearly see the details that the text talks about (which is not always the case in so many books) and it goes into great depth on the history and origin of Adam's work.

    The Soul Bird by Michal Snunit

    This is a very small book and a great one for the spirit. It always makes me cry when I read it out aloud to my nephews who must think I'm crazy but it really is a very, very beautiful book indeed.

    Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre by Dana Thomas

    This book is a cerebral one which discusses the luxury industry, mainly from the fashion point of view, but it does cover the whole concept of early branding and all the great names that we all know so well. Anyone in a luxury industry should read this book as it gives some great pointers to what has worked and what doesn't -- from a business and an ethical point of view.

    Alberto Pinto: Moderns by Philippe Renaud

    A delightful visual book containing some brilliant thoughts on design and interiors. Some elements of Pinto's work are pure heaven, and I think it's a very interesting book to use as inspiration.

    The Elements of Style by Stephen Calloway

    This was first published in 1991 and it continues to be the foundation stone of interior architects and designers across the world. This and Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture are absolute musts for anyone in design. It covers all the various domestic architectural styles from Tudor and Baroque right through to the contemporary designs of today.

  • E J Bousfield is the author of fantasy novel The Jewel Keepers Book One: Albion (Book Two: Mona should be out in 2010).

    "These are some of the books that have inspired me as a writer. I could go on forever but have chosen a few for you to look at. As you can see they are all quite different from each other. However, the one thing they have in common is the "language." I like evocative writing -- it's not just "what" is said but "how" it is said that matters to me. Some of these books are clearly great for teenagers and some were written for adults, but I think that all are great reads.

    The River King by Alice Hoffman

    Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite writers. The River King is a blend of myth, magic and realism. The story centres on the divide between the prestigious Hadden College -- a building of dilapidated splendour, built far too close to the encroaching river, and the town and its people. The college itself and the river have a character of their own -- it's this I think that gives Hoffman's writing a magical quality. The human characters are great - fifteen year old Carlin Leander and August Pierce, a tall gangly young man who, like Carlin has entered Hadden via a scholarship -- neither fit in with their wealthy peers. A close friendship develops between Carlin and August. Then one night a body is found and everything begins to unravel. It is a superb read.

    His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

    I love this trilogy, love the characters and love the storyline. Philip Pullman writes like an angel -- you can smell, feel, taste and see in detail every scene he writes. He writes about the big things... religion, power, knowledge, truth, love, trust, blossoming sexuality -- all without losing the story that drives his narrative forward. I was miserable when I finished the last book because I didn't want to leave the "worlds." I still had so many questions... and I also feared I would never find anything as good ever again!

    The Hobbit by Tolkien

    I have never read this book myself -- I am frightened I will lose the magic if I do -- but I remember as clearly as if it was yesterday, my junior school teacher reading it to us in class. It was nearing the end of the school day, I was 9, sitting on the floor on the mat, watching the sun stream through the windows onto my bare knees. Mrs Edmunds was on her chair in front of us. She opened the book, cleared her throat and read those magical first lines: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." That was it... I was hooked.

    The Raging Quiet by Sherryl Jordan

    This is a story about a young girl called Marnie -- a bright girl from a poor rural family in medieval Britain, who only marries the landowner's drunken son to prevent her family from being made homeless. When she arrives at her marital home -- to her surprise a damp and shabby cottage -- she meets Raver the local village idiot. The other villagers do not like outsiders and in this time of witch hunts, they are overtly suspicious of every young girl they meet. Then Marnie's husband dies and rumours begin to circulate that Marnie "cursed" him; that she is indeed a witch. In the meantime Raver befriends Marnie and Marnie discovers that far from being an idiot, Raver's strange noises and "ranting" are due to deafness. Marnie and Raver begin to create their own special language making signs with their hands. However the villagers interpret this "strange behaviour" as further proof that Marnie is guilty of witchcraft...

    The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus Trilogy) by Jonathan Stroud

    This is a story of a young, arrogant magician called Nathanial and a djinni, conjured one day by the inexperienced Nathanial to serve him. The djinni is called Bartimaeus and he is not at all impressed by Nathanial. He is smart and funny, very ancient and has served in the leading houses of Egypt -- he expects something better than this snotty uppity young man who has rudely demanded his presence! Jonathan Stroud creates a London ruled by magicians -- a world where politics, power and corruption are the order of the day. Nathanial finds himself drawn into a dangerous game and he will need Bartimaeus to help him survive. Nathanial and Bartimaeus are fantastically drawn out characters -the novel is funny, tense and at times scary. Great if you like a good story that contains fantasy, history and magic.

    The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

    I read this when I was 16 years old! It is a passionate and moving love story set in the harsh landscape of the Australian outback and the cold glossy halls of the Vatican. It is about family, choices and a love that is strictly forbidden. It was the Twilight of my teens except the writing is much better!

    In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill

    Wow what a read. This is a powerful story about grief and recovery. I found myself empathising strongly with the main character. A young woman loses her husband suddenly in a terrible accident at work. The book is all about her coming to terms with his death. As a reader you feel her unbearable pain and I cried lots. Then you start to watch her recover and you find yourself growing with her too, as you feel her understand the ebbs and flows of nature, of life itself. She draws strength from that and so did I as the reader. As the seasons change she moves with them... the parallels with nature are handled beautifully. It is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. It is far better than many counselling text books that have been written about the experience of grief and loss.

    Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

    This novel is worth reading for its use of language alone! The writing is evocative and pure. It is about a woman aged around 35 who leaves the city and returns to live with her father. Back in the heat of the desert she faces many ghosts from her past; the death of her mother, her difficult adolescence, her estranged relationship with her father and the land she has returned to; her beloved sister risking her life in El Salvador and then lastly, the boy from the Indian reservation she loved as a young girl but thought she had lost. They shared a secret, one they could never speak of as young lovers, but now she has returned and he seeks her out. A new relationship begins to unfold between them. Questions that have haunted her for years begin to be answered. This novel is about making sense of the past, the need for closure and the search for hope and renewal.

    Silas Marner by George Elliot

    If you like to be transported back in time to a world vastly different from our own to an England that no longer exists -- but still want a great story about love, greed and atonement, then this is the book for you. I read it for O level (GCSE) English and loved it.

    The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

    I read this book in two days. I couldn't put it down. Boy does it make you think! It works on so many different levels. The love affair between 15 year old Michael and 36 year old Hanna is beautifully drawn. It raises important questions about the collective guilt and shame that the Germans bear for the Holocaust and involves you, the reader, in asking these questions too. This is an insightful, allegorical book.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Nicholas Beale

    Tue, 11 Aug 2009 09:20

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    Nicholas Beale is a social philosopher who writes on management and on science and religion. His book with John Polkinghorne, Questions of Truth, was launched in the UK with a discussion meeting at the Royal Society chaired by Onora O'Neill, praised by Nobel Laureates Tony Hewish and William Phillips and rubbished by AC Grayling.

    Emma "seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." Perhaps the most perfect opening of any novel in English: "vex" is a masterstroke.

    E.M. Delafield who wrote The Diary of a Provincial Lady series was a prolific novelist who wrote some wonderful serious and comic novels, but her comic persona as an accident-prone provincial housewife with some intellectual friends has never been out of print. My grandmother (who appears briefly in The Provincial Lady Goes Further) knew her and asked how she got away with lampooning people like her husband's employer. EMD said that the people she lampooned never seemed to recognise themselves, only the other people.

    While on Emmas, Emma Darwin's A Secret Alchemy continues the multi-layered historical/contemporary approach she used with great effect in The Mathematics of Love. Her 15th C protagonists Elizabeth and Anthony Woodville are two of the most remarkable people from English history of that time, and she really brings them to life, with the poignant counterpoint of a decaying printing family in the present.

    The great social philosopher Charles Handy has written so many wonderful books -- I remember Tom Peters "begging people on bended knee" to read The Age of Unreason, but if I had to pick one it would perhaps be Myself and Other More Important Matters which gives deep insights into a wise life -- and would stimulate people to read others.

    Charles has been a great influence on me and many other people, as has my co-author John Polkinghorne FRS a world-class physicist turned theologian who was the founding president of the International Society for Science and Religion and has written many profound books on the subject. Again, choosing is very hard but in Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship he sheds a remarkable light on the nature of deep scientific and theological reflection. In fundamental physics you are forced to believe in unseen entities with deeply paradoxical properties.

    In this Darwin year much nonsense is talked about evolution. To understand the science properly you really need to understand the mathematics, and Martin Nowak's wonderful, and highly accessible, Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life is unparalleled. Martin is a prodigious scientist who is director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard and his book explains properly how evolutionary analysis can be applied to a vast set of problems, without the "just-so stories" and barely-numerate sloganeering that we typically get from pontificating "scientists".

    The step from the equations of life to The Music of Life is smaller than one might think, since it is written by the great pioneer of systems biology Denis Noble FRS, who made the first computer model of the heart in 1960 and still plays a leading role in this field. He is also a Troubador and plays the classical guitar. He is one of the key players in developing a more integrative understanding of biology and getting away from the silly philosophical reductionism that has been an unfortunate by-product of the major developments in understanding from molecular biology. All of this is well explored in this profound, witty and accessible book.

    Simon Conway-Morris FRS is another leading researcher and Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at Cambridge. He is also a profound thinker about evolution: try Life's Solution which explores the extraordinary phenomena of convergence in evolutionary biology, or perhaps his edited The Deep Structure of Biology.

    Profound thinkers brings me inevitably to Mary Midgley, an astoundingly perceptive philosopher. Her illumination of the multiple levels at which we need to understand reality is essential reading: her wonderful metaphor of a large aquarium (we see through windows and can glimpse other parts, which we can see more clearly through other windows) is an much-needed antidote to the silly imperialism of 3rd rate philosophers and scientific writers. The Essential Mary Midgley is a great collection of some of her finest writing.

    Finally, Onora O'Neill is another great philosopher who digs well beneath the simplistic nostrums that inhabit, and inhibit, conventional thought. Her A Question of Trust unpacks to great effect the vital notion of trust in our society, and speaks eloquently against simplistic ideas such as that the key to greater trust is more and more auditing.

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